Tuesday’s Game 7 between the San Jose Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights was one of the craziest, most entertaining games in NHL playoff history. The third period and overtime, in particular, was a wild ride, featuring an unthinkable comeback, a last-minute stunning goal, and a gorgeous overtime game-winning goal from the most unlikely of sources.
It couldn’t have happened without an egregiously bad call halfway through the third period.
The Golden Knights had control of the game in the third period. After goals at the midway mark of both the first and second periods, the Golden Knights scored again early in the third, with Max Pacioretty sending a low shot five-hole on Sharks goaltender Martin Jones after a turnover by winger Kevin Labanc.
With a little over ten minutes left and the score 3-0 for the Golden Knights, it seemed like the game, and by extension the series, was over. That’s when an ugly moment on the ice gave the Sharks new life.
Off a faceoff in the Vegas end, Golden Knights centre Cody Eakin cross-checked Joe Pavelski in the chest, sending him toppling backwards, off-balance. As Pavelski attempted to spin to his right to either get a skate under him or at least control his fall, he ran into Paul Stastny, preventing his left leg from getting under him. Instead of keeping his feet or being able to get his arms down to break his fall, Pavelski fell sideways, with his shoulder impacting the ice first, then his head.
Pavelski was motionless on the ice for a few seconds and was bleeding through the holes in the top of his helmet. It was a scary sight to see and brought to mind a similar moment from the Canucks’ season, when Alex Edler was accidentally yanked to the ice and got concussed.
Seeing the aftermath of the incident, the officials convened and decided to give Eakin a five-minute major for cross-checking and a game misconduct. It was the wrong call.
Eakin’s crosscheck deserved a two-minute minor, though it’s one of those penalties that frequently goes uncalled off of faceoffs, particularly in the playoffs. It was a minor penalty with a major consequence, so the refs called the injury, rather than the penalty.
After the game, the Golden Knights were incensed, with Jonathan Marchessault likely summing up how they all felt: “It’s a f***ing joke. It’s embarrassing, that’s what it is. It changed the entire outcome of the game, and the season.”
Here’s the thing: the call was undoubtedly wrong, but it didn’t decide the game. The bad call was out of the hands of the Golden Knights, but what happened after the penalty call wasn’t. Growing up playing sports, I was always told by my coaches that you can't let bad calls decide the game: you decide the game. If you're angry at the refs, you channel that into how you play.
On the five-minute penalty, the Sharks scored four goals in four minutes to take the lead. It was a stunning turnaround and the eighth fastest four goals by one team in NHL playoff history. Logan Couture scored twice, Tomas Hertl scored once, and Labanc made up for his earlier giveaway to score the go-ahead goal.
In fact, Labanc recorded points on all four of the Sharks’ goals, becoming the first player in NHL history to record four points in a period in a Game 7.
It was an unreal turn of events, but the Golden Knights still had one more surprise. With Marc-Andre Fleury pulled for the extra attacker, the Golden Knights sent six forwards onto the ice. Jonathan Marchessault found a soft spot in the Sharks’ defensive coverage (right in front of Brent Burns, who probably shouldn’t win the Norris), and fired home a pass from Reilly Smith to tie the game in the final minute of regulation.
An exhilarating overtime ensued, capped off by a game-winning goal from Barclay Goodrow, who scored all-of seven goals all season and played just 7:26 in Game 7. Evidently, that meant he had fresh legs, as he took a pass from Erik Karlsson, burned rubber past Brayden McNabb, and tucked the puck around a sprawling Fleury.
It’s only the second time in NHL history a team has overcome a three-goal deficit in the third period to win a Game 7.
So, did the Golden Knights lose because of the controversial cross-checking call? No. Of course not. Don’t be ridiculous.
Sure, the Golden Knights and their fans have a reason to be miffed at the refs for blowing that call, giving the Sharks a chance to get back into the game, but that’s all the refs gave the Sharks: a chance. The refs didn’t score four goals in four minutes or somehow cause the Golden Knights’ penalty killers to forget how to do their jobs.
The Sharks had a strong power play this season, but their leader in power play goals, Joe Pavelski, obviously wasn’t on the ice. The Golden Knights had a reasonably good penalty kill during the regular season: they only gave up more than two power play goals in a game once all season, allowing three against the Calgary Flames.
In fact, in their entire franchise history, the Golden Knights had never given up four power play goals in a single game. Sure, that history is only two seasons long, but that still makes it a very rare occurrence.
Heck, the Chicago Blackhawks had the league’s worst penalty kill this season at 72.7%. Even they didn’t give up four power play goals in a game all season.
All that is to say, the Golden Knights should have been able to, if not kill off the penalty completely, at least not give up four goals. Even limiting the Sharks to two power play goals on the five-minute major would have left them with the lead and just over five minutes left to play.
Beyond that, the Golden Knights only had a three-goal lead to begin with because of an earlier questionable call. Their second goal, scored by none other than Cody Eakin, was pretty blatantly a high stick. Eakin’s stick was parallel with his shoulders when he made contact with the puck and, since Eakin’s shoulders are above the crossbar, that’s a high stick.
It was called a goal on the ice, however, and the video review was inconclusive — apparently there are no cameras at crossbar level in NHL arenas — so it was called a good goal.
Even beyond that goal, however, the Golden Knights had two other opportunities to win this series. They were up 3-1 in the series, but couldn’t close things out in Game 5, as the Sharks bounced back with a 5-2 win. They had a good chance to win at home in Game 6, however.
The Golden Knights struggled to beat Martin Jones, but earned a power play in double overtime, with Game 7’s hero, Barclay Goodrow, in the box for slashing Brayden McNabb’s stick. The Sharks could have made a complaint about that call, considering McNabb had slashed Goodrow’s stick on the same play and more egregious penalties had been let go throughout the overtime periods.
Unlike the Golden Knights, however, the Sharks’ penalty kill didn’t give in. Instead, the Sharks stunned the Vegas crowd with the only shorthanded goal in a multiple-overtime game in NHL history. Tomas Hertl took an outlet pass, skated over the Vegas blue line, and whipped a long wrist shot past Fleury, who was fooled when Hertl’s follow-through was disrupted by Shea Theodore’s stick check.
So, the Golden Knights had three chances to win a fourth game and move on to the second round. They failed to do so in Game 5; they were given every opportunity to do so in Game 6 and again failed; and they gave up four of the fastest goals in playoff history in Game 7, yet still had a chance to win the game in overtime.
It’s hard to blame one blown call, even a five-minute major, for the Golden Knights getting knocked out of the playoffs.
On the plus side for Vegas fans, they’ve received a baptism by fire into the trials and tribulations of being a true hockey fan. If you don’t have at least one terrible penalty call to complain about for the next several decades, are you even a fan of an NHL team?